Hurricane Gustav buffeted impoverished Haiti on Tuesday and sent global oil prices soaring on fears it could become "extremely dangerous" in the Gulf of Mexico.
Rains on the leading edge of the storm drove many Haitians off the capital's potholed streets, but prompted few other outward signs of preparation only hours before the eye's powerful winds were expected to strike land.
Oil investors reacted sharply however, fearing the hurricane could threaten the Gulf's many drilling platforms. Prices jumped by about US$5 a barrel after the Miami-based National Hurricane Center projected Tuesday that Gustav would gather strength over the Gulf's warm waters.
"Most indications are that Gustav will be an extremely dangerous hurricane in the northwestern Caribbean Sea in a few days," the hurricane center said.
It is hard to predict just where Gustav will strike, "but the market is reacting to it," said Victor Shum, an energy analyst with Purvin & Gertz in Singapore.
At Port-au-Prince's airport, stranded travelers mobbed the American Airlines counter, desperate to rebook tickets after the airline canceled all flights.
"I knew it was coming, but I was hoping to be out before it came," said Jody Stoltzfus, a 27-year-old missionary who said the cancellation will cut short her two-week visit home to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Early projections show the storm slicing along the south coast of Cuba during the week and possibly growing into a perilous Category 3 hurricane with 120 mph winds before entering the central Gulf of Mexico on Sunday, according to the hurricane center. But forecasts often shift significantly as a storm develops.
The U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, on Cuba's southeast coastline, had been expecting a direct hit, but the latest forecasts showed the hurricane passing offshore.
"Routine base operations will continue through the day as normal, assuming conditions warrant this, while emergency preparations continue," said Bruce Lloyd, spokesman for the base where the U.S. detains about 265 men.
Forecasters said the hurricane's maximum sustained winds were near 90 mph Tuesday morning, with higher gusts. They said it could become a Category 2 hurricane with winds of 96 mph or higher before hitting Haiti.
The hurricane was centered about 50 miles south of Port-au-Prince and was moving toward the northwest at near 9 mph.
Forecasts suggested that Gustav's eye might pass near the capital of Port-au-Prince, home to nearly 3 million people.
A light rain fell on Port-au-Prince as the sun rose on an overcast Tuesday. The city's rough streets, often bustling with commerce at the crack of dawn, were largely empty as merchants took refuge.
"The government orders the population to take precautions because this storm will bring a lot of rain," Interior Minister Paul Antonine Bien-Aime told Radio Ginen.
Preparations for the storm appeared to be minimal and in the hurricane-prone southwestern city of Les Cayes, in the hurricane's path, some people without access to television or satellite images said they doubted a storm was even approaching.
"There's no rain and wind, the sky is clear, cars are traveling everywhere. I don't think there's a hurricane," Marc Andre, a 22-year-old motorcycle taxi driver, said over his cell phone at dawn.
Yet Haitians are accustomed to the power of such blasts. Flooding caused by storms and hurricanes killed more than 100 people in Haiti and scores in the Dominican Republic last year. In 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne killed some 3,000 people in the Haitian city of Gonaives alone.
On Monday, Carnival Cruise Lines diverted one of its ships from Montego Bay, Jamaica, to a Mexican port to avoid the storm, company spokesman Vance Gulliksen said. Other cruise lines said they were closely tracking its path.
In Jamaica, officials alerted shelters to prepare for possible evacuations during the storm that is forecast to pass near the island Wednesday.
Earlier this month, Tropical Storm Fay killed 23 people on the island of Hispaniola shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Nearly all were due to flooded rivers.
Meanwhile, the remnants of Fay brought heavy rain and winds from Georgia to Louisiana. Floridians were still mopping up floodwaters from a storm that stuck around for a week and made a historic four landfalls, dumping more than 30 inches (76 centimeters) of rain along the central Atlantic coast.
The National Weather Service said the vestiges of Fay would deluge northern Georgia, with 3 inches to 5 inches of rain expected in the Atlanta area and up to 8 inches (20 centimeters) in northeast Georgia.
In Alabama, flash flood and tornado warnings were posted.
In Mexico, Tropical Depression Julio dissipated into a low pressure system, dumping rain over northwest Mexico.
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